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Surge in arms imports to Europe and US – arms trade race raises concerns over global stability and human rights implications

In the past five years, there has been a sharp rise in the import of major arms by European states, with an increase of 47 percent between 2013-17 and 2018-22, according to new data published by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). Meanwhile, the global level of international arms transfers has decreased by 5.1 percent. The SIPRI report highlights that while arms imports fell in Africa (–40 percent), the Americas (–21 percent), Asia and Oceania (–7.5 percent), and the Middle East (–8.8 percent), imports to East Asia and certain states in other areas of high geopolitical tension rose sharply.

The United States’ share of global arms exports increased from 33 to 40 percent, while Russia’s fell from 22 to 16 percent, making the US the largest arms exporter in the world. According to the report, US arms exports increased by 14 percent between 2013-17 and 2018-22. In contrast, Russia’s arms exports fell by 31 percent in the same period. France’s share of the global arms market also increased from 7.1 percent to 11 percent, with a 44 percent increase in exports between 2013-17 and 2018-22. Most of France’s arms exports were to states in Asia and Oceania and the Middle East.

The increase in arms imports to Europe can be attributed to the tensions between Russia and most other European states, particularly following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. As a result, European states want to import more arms, faster. This increase in demand has made Europe the only region to have seen a rise in arms imports. The report states that “even as arms transfers have declined globally, those to Europe have risen sharply.”

The Middle East continues to be a significant recipient of high-end US and European arms, with three of the top 10 importers in 2018-22 being in the region. Saudi Arabia was the world’s second-largest arms importer in 2018-22, receiving 9.6 percent of all arms imports during the period. The great majority of arms imports to the Middle East came from the US (54 percent), followed by France (12 percent), Russia (8.6 percent), and Italy (8.4 percent).

Interestingly, Ukraine, which had imported few major arms until the end of 2021, became the third-largest importer of major arms during 2022, after Qatar and India, due to military aid from the US and many European states following the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Ukraine accounted for 2 percent of global arms imports in the five-year period.

The report also notes that Asia and Oceania continue to be the top importing region, accounting for 41 percent of major arms transfers in 2018-22, a slightly smaller share than in 2013-17. There were marked increases in some states in the region, notably US treaty allies South Korea (+61 percent) and Japan (+171 percent), due to growing perceptions of threats from China and North Korea.

The data presented in the SIPRI report reflects the volume of deliveries of arms, not the financial value of the deals. SIPRI presents data for five-year periods, giving a more stable measure of trends. The SIPRI Arms Transfers Database is the only public resource that provides consistent information, often estimates, on all international transfers of major arms (including sales, gifts, and production under license) to states, international organizations, and non-state groups since 1950.

The rise in arms imports to Europe and the increased dominance of the US in the global arms trade reflect the continued political tensions and conflicts around the world. As

the report notes, strategic competition and geopolitical tensions continue to drive arms imports to certain regions, particularly in East Asia and the Middle East. Additionally, the decline in Russian arms exports can be attributed to trade sanctions and increasing pressure from the US and its allies not to buy Russian arms.

The increasing dominance of the US in the global arms trade also raises concerns about the impact of US arms exports on regional conflicts and instability. While the US has been a major arms exporter for decades, the current administration’s focus on arms exports as a tool for advancing its foreign policy agenda has raised concerns about the human rights implications of these exports.

Human rights organizations have highlighted the use of US arms in conflicts and human rights abuses in countries such as Yemen, where a Saudi-led coalition has been accused of war crimes and violations of international humanitarian law. The US has been a major supplier of arms to Saudi Arabia, and the continued increase in arms exports to the Middle East raises concerns about the US’s complicity in the ongoing conflicts in the region.

The rise in arms imports to Europe also raises questions about the effectiveness of arms transfers as a tool for addressing security concerns. While European states are importing more arms in response to the perceived threat from Russia, there are concerns about the impact of these arms transfers on regional stability and the potential for arms races to exacerbate tensions.

Moreover, the focus on arms transfers as a means of addressing security concerns overlooks the root causes of conflicts and political tensions, including economic inequality, political instability, and human rights abuses. Addressing these underlying issues is crucial for achieving long-term peace and stability, rather than relying on arms transfers as a band-aid solution.

In conclusion, the SIPRI report highlights the ongoing geopolitical tensions and conflicts around the world that are driving the rise in arms imports to Europe and the increasing dominance of the US in the global arms trade. While arms transfers may be seen as a tool for addressing security concerns, the long-term impact of these transfers on regional stability and the human rights implications of these transfers cannot be overlooked. Ultimately, addressing the root causes of conflicts and political tensions is crucial for achieving lasting peace and stability.